We have a couple of publications coming in 2016 that are not exactly children’s books. One is Alpha, a graphic novel of one man’s journey from Africa to Europe in search of his family. He is accompanied by a child for some of the way but Alpha himself is an adult – a skilled craftsman, a husband, a father.
We are, of course, best known as a children’s publisher and a few folk have asked us why, then, we’re publishing Alpha. We hope the answer is obvious – we believe it’s suitable for young people because we firmly believe that as they mature young people can and should read books written for general readers. We bought the rights to Alpha with every intention of making it available to adults young and old and of developing resources to support its use in schools. We’re excited to be doing this in partnership with Amnesty UK.
Since this has been on our minds, we were interested in the response to Lynne Reid Banks’s recent complaint to the Guardian regarding David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey, the winner of this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Reid Banks wrote, “In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17… Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.”
Reid Banks hasn’t been keeping an eye on the prize and its rules, it seems, or on legal usages. The prize is open to books for children “aged eight and above” and the inclusion of books aimed at the over 12s is entirely consistent with the UN definition of a child as “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”. Past winners have included titles aimed at the top end of the spectrum and the bottom. Junk won it, and so did The Sheep-Pig.
But it is also true that it is not uncommon to distinguish between ‘children’ of 12 and under and ‘young people’ in their teens. In the context of books and reading a further term comes into play – ‘young adult’. This may indicate people between the ages of 12 and 18 and be used interchangeably with ‘teenager’ or ‘young person’. Alternatively it may be defined as meaning older teenagers of 14+ or even 16+ and many publishers – nervous souls when it comes to parental or school complaints – take care to use it in this way. It may even spill over into the post-school years to take in 18–25s. (Anyone in any doubt that all adults are not equal might look at the provisions of the UK benefits system for under 25s.)
In market category terms, then, a young adult book might be said to be a book published with any teenager in mind, or maybe a book published for an older teenager, or even a book published for the under 25s. Famously, YA is also widely read by adults (“anatomically, at least”, the late, great Mal Peet once quipped). The categorisation is not used for just any book read by teenagers, of course, because teenagers also read general fiction, classics and so on.
This is clearly anything but clear and the truth is that many people define YA by feel or by specific characteristics – as a genre, really, rather than a market category. I’ve heard Patrick Ness suggest one definition might be books with young protagonists inside looking out, as opposed to books about young people framed by the narratives of grown adults. But in the way of such things, Life: An Exploded Diagram immediately springs to mind as a book that doesn’t fit this definition although it’s published as YA. It has some striking similarities in structural and thematic terms to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and that isn’t sold as YA. And on the other hand To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre would all fit Ness’s definition but are considered general fiction, or classics.
Does any of this matter? We think the answer is yes, and no.
Yes, because when we’re shifting shedloads of YA to adults, we do ultimately run the risk of losing sight of the kids. At a basic level our sales figures cease to be an indicator of reaching them. At worst we may be pitching more to these adults and less to the young. Unlike Reid Banks I think the danger here isn’t risky content; rather it’s the risk that we tone it down for grown-ups taking refuge from ‘adult’ books.
No, because genre and marketing categories are ultimately no more than tools – albeit handy ones – to fit books into sales and marketing structures, facilitate review, analysis etc. Theoretically these shouldn’t matter to readers. But they do, because these channels are key to the ways in which readers access books. So that’s a qualified ‘no’.
And another qualified ‘no’; when debates on YA take place it’s not uncommon to see criticism rebutted on the basis that ‘it’s a market category’ and too broad for generalisations to apply. I have an issue with this. Genres are pretty massive things too and it’s not uncommon for the whole genre to be subject to a bit of scrutiny – gender in sci-fi is an obvious example. And YA as defined by ‘feel’ does have some tropes that bear examination. It gives me a queasy feeling when adults – authors, publishers, readers, critics – argue against scrutiny of what we as adults, at least ostensibly, set up as something we say to young people. That’s a communication channel that comes with some responsibility, no?
It’s not clear why Lynne Reid Banks deemed it necessary to include the word ‘lesbian’ in her complaint. A kind interpretation would be that she includes it as a synonym for ‘sexual’. Another, of course, would be that it is a homophobic comment.
We loved this recent Guardian round-up of favourite reads and the fact so many young reviewers included ‘grown-up’ books in theirs.